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The bookworm is on the verge of becoming an endangered species in America. More than 60% of students in our nation’s K-12 schools can’t proficiently read at their grade levels, and pandemic-related remote learning and a teacher shortage in the past few years have exacerbated the decline. Literacy is in crisis, and the bookworm’s only hope for survival is through fundamental improvements to the entire reading ecosystem.

How do we do this? It certainly won’t be a one-and-done endeavor, but here’s an optimistic beginning: Say we tried to transform the reading landscape from the south up, by introducing a pro-literacy prototype in Florida that could zigzag its way through the rest of the nation. This is big thinking, for sure, but that’s the goal of the 2002-founded Lastinger Center for Learning at the University of Florida (UF).

The Center’s approach to addressing the literacy crisis began in 2018, and the new Literacy Micro-Credentials program (which launched on January 1 and is totally free) is taking this one step further. Combined with literacy coaching and at-home book delivery, the Micro-Credentials program is part of an all-hands-on-deck reading structure that addresses the needs of whole communities—from children and parents to teachers, coaches, administrators and district-wide leaders. It is open to all education professionals, is accountability-based and experiential, and early performance indicators for the program show major potential.

And Florida’s communities undoubtedly need the support. While Florida is seven percentage points above the national average for literacy, and top in the country when demographics are factored into the equation, that still leaves us with more than half of our children not reading proficiently by the fourth grade.

The current pervasive opinion on the literacy crisis (in Florida and nationwide) seems to be that teachers and schools are to blame. This is both unfair and untrue. What we are really experiencing is a systemic problem that is decades-old and inherently flawed.

The U.S. system has never been designed to help educators teach reading effectively. Elementary education programs train graduates to be generalists (to teach math, social studies, science, writing and reading). The latter is just one subject in a lengthy list, and there aren’t enough credit hours in these programs to foster literacy specialization through ongoing professional learning opportunities and job-embedded support.

That’s why an initiative like the Micro-Credentials program is so essential. Supported by the Florida Legislature and the Florida Department of Education, the program is designed for all adults who come into contact with children in educational settings. Virtually no other literacy programs have ever offered this type of holistic professional development (certainly not to paraprofessionals, and definitely not focused on students from birth to twelfth grade).

Some might think that teaching reading is second nature. It’s not. It’s a science. The Micro-Credentials program addresses the need to train educators and support staff to become experts in reading instruction and well-versed in the Science of Reading. Literacy rates also depend on a coordinated network of district-level leaders, supportive government officials, advocacy organizations, state funding agencies and family members. The Micro-Credentials program is an example of what happens when a symbiotic relationship exists between all these participants.

More than 10,000 educators statewide now have access to the pioneering program, making Florida as good a candidate as any to becoming the most literate state in the nation.

But the Micro-Credentials program is just an extension of the intensive work that the Lastinger Center team has already done. In 2022, across the eight schools in the Transformation Zone in Pinellas County (which were formerly dubbed “Failure Factories” due to their poor literacy rates), hundreds of teachers have participated in the Lastinger Center’s Flamingo Literacy Matrix. The Matrix is an online professional development system based on the Science of Reading, which serves as a high-quality option for Florida’s Reading Endorsement.

In participating schools, there has been a 32% improvement in the number of second-grade students expected to reach proficiency on the upcoming third-grade Florida assessment. There has also been a 77% gain in teacher knowledge of the Science of Reading in the past four years.

We can’t wait to see the progress our Micro-Credentials program makes, as we work toward rebuilding a new literacy landscape throughout the state (and, ultimately, the nation). With this focused and forward-thinking approach, we’re dedicated to saving our bookworms, one educational community at a time.

Dr. Paige Pullen, Chief Literacy Officer & Academic Principal at the UF Lastinger Center for Learning.